In April of 1897 a group of Viennese artists in revolt against the establishment formed an exhibition society known as the Vienna Secession.
It was neither unique nor artistically monolithic. Secession groups sprang up in many German and Austrian communities during this period, and the word signifies an effort to break with the past rather than a particular style such as impressionism. The Vienna group was eager to promote new ideas, to deal in modern themes and everyday life rather than history and heroism, and to erase traditional barriers between "high" arts such as painting and sculpture and "low" arts such as graphics and design.
With a few exceptions, notably Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, the artists of the Vienna Secession are not especially well-known today (some are not even well known in Austria). So we are fortunate to have the 76 prints and drawings of "Secessionism and Austrian Graphic Art 1900-1920," a Smithsonian traveling exhibit now at the Mitchell Gallery of St. John's College in Annapolis.
The big three mentioned above are here, if not as extensively as one might wish. Kokoschka is most widely represented, by four colorful, stylized prints from the "Dreaming Boys" series (1906-1908), two expressionist prints from the World War I period (1913-1916) and a portrait of "Max Reinhardt" (1919) that has an almost childlike appeal.
Three drawings by Klimt show his wonderful, nervously sensual line and indicate his decorative tendency. Schiele is represented by only two works, but "Male Nude" (1912) gives some idea of his brilliant portrayal of psychological torment through both facial expression and delineation of body.
The exhibit is especially useful, however, in showing less well-known artists. Alfred Kubin's debt to both Goya and Redon is well indicated by three fantasies from the "Weber Series" (1903), but he shows a somewhat lighter side in the humorous "Breakfast at the Beach" (about 1925). Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando's drawings here (e.g., "Zoology," 1919), deal in burlesque and caricature. Franz von Zulow's landscapes ("Forest with Hemlock Trees," 1903) have the sectioned quality of mosaics.
Aloys Wach's woodcuts from the "Lost Son" cycle have the faceted appearance of shattered glass, and his "Female Nude" (1914) displays a fine economy of line. Economy of means is only one of the virtues of Klemens Bosch's strongly abstract but at the same time superbly evocative "Train Station" (1926). And Stascho Gunia's "Portrait of a Man with Orchid (Self Portrait)" (about 1925) is both a picture of decadence personified and a beautiful colored drypoint.
The show has more rewards than can be mentioned here, but the catalog's poorly edited essays could be better.
"Secessionism" runs at the Mitchell Gallery, off St. John's Street in Annapolis, through Oct. 27. Call 269-0775.